Forty one years ago today my father,Merrill Charles Wautlet, died at the age of forty-five. We were living in Ratingen, Germany just outside of Dusseldorf. My dad was working for Kaiser Aluminum and we had only been in Germany four months when he passed away. At age eleven my world was changed forever.
My dad was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. Appleton is in the Fox Valley just thirty miles south of Green Bay. A mill town, paper giant Kimberly Clark is headquartered there. My dad was one of nine surviving children born to Rose and Fabian Wautlet. My dad’s oldest brother, Donald, died from a broken neck he suffered when he fell from a tree. That made my father the oldest boy in the family.
My father was fun loving and adventurous. He possessed a keen intellect but despised school, apparently because it was not challenging for him. At age seventeen he left Wisconsin forever and joined the Merchant Marines. During World War II he was on ships that were sunk twice, once in the North Sea and the second time in the Caribbean. After the second sinking he was on a life raft for several days, was the ranking officer and had to stop men from drinking seawater, and suffered severe burns on his back from exposure to the sun.
After the war he moved to New Orleans and became a merchant seaman. He traveled the world and saw exotic ports. He met my mother in a most peculiar fashion. He fell down a flight of stairs and crashed into a metal sewing machine, destroying it. She came to his aid and supposedly he looked up and said something akin to ” I must be dead because you have the face of an angel.” Only Dad could say something that corny and get away with it. They got married in July of 1950 and my mother persuaded him to get another job, so he went to work for Kaiser.
Smoking and exposure to the toxic air of the pot rooms in an aluminum plant gave my father emphysema. I saw pictures of a strapping 6’0″ 210 pound man but the father I had was thin and gaunt, weighing around 150 pounds. When he had attacks his face would turn beet red and veins would swell in his neck and forehead as he gasped for air.
Despite the daily ordeal of dealing with his illness my father was always a man of good cheer. He loved to joke and tell stories and people loved to be around him. My mother’s family adored him and whenever a problem arose Whitey, (his nickname), generally got a call or visit so he could offer his perspective. His years at sea gave him a world view and the long months on the ship allowed for him to read volumes of books. There was no subject that he couldn’t speak to, whether it was art, music, politics, even religion. But he always expressed himself in a non-threatening way. He had unsurpassed patience, a priceless quality needed to live with my mother.
Being from Wisconsin my dad enjoyed beer and his prize possession was a draft beer box. I was often called upon to go pour him a cold one after he had a hard day. Sometimes he would be exhausted but he would still pull himself out of his chair to go throw the football with me or play catch with a baseball if I prodded him long enough.
Kaiser also sent dad to far away places. We never accompanied him, in part due to my mother. I was born in Ohio, as my dad had been transferred to rural West Virginia, and the nearest hospital was across the Ohio River. After leaving New Orleans once my mother was determined not to do it again. My parents had been married almost ten years when I was born so fatherhood was not on my dad’s radar. He still had the spirit of a nomad. After West Virginia he spent eighteen months in India so I never really knew him until I turned three.
The reality is I spent about eight years with my father. I was proud that I was able to help convince my mother that we should go to Germany. She was worried that he might die over there and he was worried that he might die never having seen another part of the world. Sadly she was right. Happily my dad was able to take on one more challenge.
He got sick while on special assignment to Wales and was bedridden upon his return back to Germany. Worried that he might be sent home he dragged himself to his carpool on December 30th. His co-workers begged him to go home but he would not listen. He died later that evening.
As the years passed I thought of my father often and tried to piece together the fabric of his life. I wondered what kind of conversations we might have had as I grew older. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him and missed him even more when I had my own trials, as I knew he would have had the wisdom and patience to guide me. But most of all I wondered if he would have been proud of me.
When I was a senior in high school I was was a starter on our basketball team. A very good basketball team. My junior year we had finished second in state. My senior year I wanted us to do better. I also wanted to honor my father’s memory. Earlier that summer I had visited relatives in Wisconsin. I walked the streets he had walked as kid. I saw where he grew up and went to school. It was there that I figured out how to keep him with me.
The New Orleans Jazz was our local NBA team. One of my favorite players was E.C. Coleman. He was known as a defensive stalwart and my high school team stressed defense. Another favorite player was M.L. Carr of the Boston Celtics. He was known for coming off the bench and bringing intensity and passion to his team.
I remembered that my dad’s checking account was in the name of M.C. Wautlet. I also had a commemorative plaque he had received from his time in India getting the new Kaiser plant up and running. It too was made out to M.C. Wautlet. Finally there was a Kaiser handbook on pot room operations that I had. In the back was a listing of all the contributors. One of them was M.C. Wautlet.
My senior year before every game when they announced the starting line ups I went out as M.C. Wautlet. It was a special year because I felt like I carried him with me as we journeyed to our school’s first state title.
After that I said if I ever had a son I would name him Merrill III but call him M.C. When my wife and I found out we were going to be parents for the first time we both wondered what we would have. I was hoping for a boy but it was too soon to tell. All that would change in a few short weeks.
Not long after we found out my wife Jen was pregnant I had a vivid dream. I was chasing a little blond haired boy around a white , almost cloudy room. I called him by name. I called him M.C. I then saw a man sitting in a recliner. It was my Dad! I spoke to my father and complained about my son not minding me. Then I said that I knew I had been difficult and that he had given up his freedom once I was born. He looked at me. He said that I had a fine son, that he cherished every moment he got to spend with me, and that he wouldn’t have traded that time we had together for anything in the world. I woke up, startled by the reality of the dream. I told my wife about it and an ultrasound later confirmed what I already knew.
My conversations with my own sons are one sided, as they are both profoundly autistic, in much the same way my conversations with my father were one sided because he left me so early in my life. Perhaps that was why my son was running from me and not listening to me in my dream. But I feel my boy’s love in unspoken ways, much the same way I felt my own father’s love when I needed it most. The way I am feeling it now as I type these words.
My M.C. was born in 1990, the same year M.C. Hammer was topping the music charts. Many of our friends thought we had named our son for the rapper. The truth was we named our son for the original M.C. My Dad.
Wow, Merrill what a beautiful writing! Proud is definitely the word your father would say to you! Your writing really touched my heart and I just had to tell you so. Happy New Year!
Thanks so much Debbie. I appreciate your kind comments. Let’s catch up soon.
Very nice Merrill.